Not A Crime’s education equality campaign works through street art to raise awareness of the Baha’is of Iran, the country’s largest religious minority. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government has blocked Bahai’s from pursuing further education, which is a key tenet of the Baha’i faith, along with gender equality.
The campaign works with curators and street artists around the world, creating innovative murals that tell the story of the Baha’is. IranWire's series about the murals will continue over the coming months as the project moves from global locations through the American South and finally to Harlem in New York City.
The latest addition to the art scene in Nashville, Tennessee, is a mural about the human rights crisis facing the Baha’i religious minority in Iran. Tens of thousands of young Baha’is have been blocked or expelled from university since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution – just because of their beliefs.
The Nashville mural, in the city’s Fort Houston district, by local street artist Rönzi, is the latest addition to the global Not A Crime campaign. Not A Crime, which was started by IranWire’s founder and editor-in-chief Maziar Bahari, works with street artists around the world to raise awareness of the situation of the Iranian Baha’i community. Public art pieces for the issue have been painted in New York, across Brazil, in Cape Town, London and Sydney. Three recent murals, in Atlanta, Georgia formed the start of a special series of Not A Crime murals in the American South, with a focus on the US Civil Rights movement. The Atlanta murals were painted in the historic Martin Luther King District and directly address education equality.
Rönzi’s work also makes a clear reference to Civil Rights – specifically to race relations issues. His image plays on the much-loved 1970s arcade game Space Invaders. In the original game, a player fires a laser cannon to defeat alien invaders before they can land on Earth. But Rönzi’s piece turns the original game on its head: instead of destroying aliens, the laser blasts transform them from homogenous invaders into a diverse range of colors and shapes. His mural also flips the original vertical orientation of the game to a horizontal left-right arrangement.
The aliens, Rönzi said, represent all peoples and cultures. “I like how in the video game, if you have ever played, the top is attacking the bottom of the screen. But in this mural, the right side, which represents hatred and intolerance, is attacking the left side, which is unity in diversity.”
Space Invaders is a longstanding motif in street art. The image was pioneered by the Banksy protege “Invader” and has been referenced by celebrated artists such as Ron English.
Rönzi also referenced two of the Not A Crime murals previously painted in New York. ASVP’s barbed pencil and Cyrcle’s broken ruler were both evoked in the Nashville piece. The laser blasts took the form of these pencils and rulers to illustrate the role of education in transforming hatred and intolerance into diversity and unity.
“I wanted to create something that would be playful, but convey the message of the campaign, which is serious,” he said. “It doesn’t matter about location. Anybody anywhere has the capacity to stand up to injustice. The more voices that are involved in that and standing up to those injustices the better off we all are.”
Public art has a unique role to play in social causes, Rönzi said. “Street art can be very local and it exists locally so it can mobilize people where they live. Street art is great for bringing political messages to a local platform. It’s becoming a very popular form of modern day art expression.”
Nashville is still new to the street art world. But the Not A Crime mural follows a series of recent public art campaigns. Rönzi’s piece was produced in collaboration with Nashville’s Color Theory Studios, which have been at the forefront of introducing the city to public art.
Tinsley Dempsey, a Nashville resident and the founder of Color Theory Studios, embraced the project.
“I absolutely love the Rönzi piece,” she said. “It's going be seen by so many people who come out to this area.”
Rachel Wolfe, who commissioned Rönzi’s piece on behalf of Not A Crime, said that local support is key to building a global human rights campaign.
"People often stop and speak to the artist and would really connect to this specific image from their childhood,” she said. “And they appreciated the way this game was repurposed to connect them to this issue of education and to a specific situation they didn’t know about. It’s a great example of how street art and popular culture can play a role in raising awareness of a human rights crisis happening in a country far, far away.”